Thursday, January 12, 2012

Did The Media Made Hawking Famous?

There's no question that Stephen Hawking is the most famous living physicist right now. The brouhaha surrounding his 70th Birthday is evidence that only someone like him can commend such a symposium with such publicity. But how did he become THIS famous and this well-known, and why?

This article makes a critical examination on Hawking's celebrity status.

The build-up began in earnest last week when Hawking gave an exclusive interview to New Scientist in which he discussed the most exciting development in physics over the course of his career (finding evidence that the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang), his biggest scientific blunder (thinking that information was destroyed in black holes), and his advice to young physicists (formulate an original idea that opens a new field).

But none of these comments was as newsworthy, seemingly, as the response he gave to a question about what he thinks about most during the day: “Women. They are a complete mystery.” This quote was chosen as the lead in stories about Hawking by, among others, CBS news, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Huffington Post.

This focus on Hawking-as-personality illuminates a recurring theme in his public life: that his fame—his reputation as “the brightest star in the scientific universe”—has as much, and perhaps more, to do with his media-created popular appeal as with his scientific achievements.
The article certainly mentioned the role of the media in not only presenting him to the public, but also in helping to shape his image, all with the participation of (and maybe even orchestrated by) Hawking himself.

But for journalists examining Hawking’s wider profile, the crucial point to note is that these characteristics—his cosmological research, his popularization work, his physical condition—have all been combined and packaged in his media portrayal. His public image could not have occurred without the media. With his participation, they shaped and molded it.
But does he warrant such publicity? Has he really contributed to some of the most important ideas in physics? What do other physicists think about him? More importantly, who would they rank as the physicist that has made the most important contribution to physics?

This has led to tensions within his field. Other physicists have been, at times, ambivalent about his reputation, because of what some of them see as his having a public profile that is out of proportion to his scientific merit.

In 1999, Physics World surveyed approximately 130 physicists and asked them to name the five researchers who made the most important contributions to the field. Albert Einstein came first with 119 votes. Richard Feynman came seventh with 23 votes. Paul Dirac came eighth with 22 votes. Hawking received one vote.
 I will admit that, as a physicist, I would not have put Hawking anywhere in the top 10, much less, top 5. One tends to select a physicist whose work has impact in ALL areas of physics, not just a narrow section of physics. Certainly Einstein, Dirac, Feynman, Bohr, Heisenberg, etc. all have done so. As someone who specialized in condensed matter physics while in college, and then became an accelerator physicist, I don't ever recall using or learning something that came from Hawking's work. I certainly am aware of when I was using something that came out of Einstein, Dirac, Feynman, Bohr, Heisenberg, etc., and often, in many different subject areas. Hawking's contribution to the body of knowledge of physics isn't pervasive enough.

Now, if you want to talk about his contribution to popularizing physics, especially to the public, now that's a different matter. Physics and physicists certainly owe him a lot of gratitude for his part in making the subject of physics hip and cool among many who followed Hawking's celebrity status.

Come to think of it, I think I read a while ago that Carl Sagan also suffered from a certain level of "disdain" by fellow astronomers due to his popularity in the media. Of course, one can't be a professor at Cornell if one is a lightweight in astronomy. So as in the case with Hawking, Sagan had produced quite a bit of work. But I don't recall Sagan having such an "idolization" as much as Hawking. Certainly no one insisted that Sagan should "... have won the Nobel Prize many times...” and “ somebody who has discovered many things in his lifetime.....”, as stated by Richard Branson in the article. The level of celebrity is just different now with the media and the internet.

Members of the public, and Richard Branson in particular, need to examine why there is disconnect between how physicists perceive Hawking, and how they perceive him. Do you care more about the bells-and-whistles instead of the substance? Sure you do! Admit it! :)



Ezra Freelove said...

More scientists like Einstein, Hawking, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson should be engaging the media so the public have more opportunities to learn about science, logic, and rationality. How they got there does not worry me much. Whether it is 100% accurate does not even bother me much. Motivation to people improving their lives is worth it.

David said...

You were too light. In fact, Hawking would not enter even in a top 100, or a much bigger number. Basically every nobel prize winner is way higher, and there are hundreds of them! It is not because Hawking is a bad physicist, but because there are so many incredible physicists and so many physics that hawking's contributions are nothing for the big picture. Think that in the own field of hawking's contributions, that per se is infinitesimal and people know it only because black holes are nice (in fact, the whole field of black hole termodynamics is only speculation!), has a name of much more importance: Bekenstein, of whose work hawking's biggest contribution for physics is only a corollary. When I saw you comparing hawking to names as einstein, dirac, bohr, etc... I had a feeling of wtf. Well, that is it. I'm saying that not because I hate hawking's popularity or something like that (in fact, that is pretty fair, something to compensate for his disease), but because I get shocked every time I hear people putting the trio "Newton, Einstein, Hawking" as the physics top men!

michael edelman said...

This really does point out the disconnect between the public's perception, and what working researchers do. A commentor states that more scientists like "Einstein, Hawking, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson" should engage the public. Of course you cannot be both a working scientist and a popularizer. Feynmann's fame came from stories gathered by a friend of his, a handful of public lectures, and some public appearances very late in his career. Same goes for Einstein. deGrasse Tyson has only a handful of publications. His 9-5 job is as an educator, not a working scientist.

Hawking has done important work, but that's not the reason for his fame. Who outside of physics could actually tell you what he's done?